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Rich Communications Suite: Really Considered Significantly Obsolete

It was a curious Mobile World Congress last week; half Telco 2.0 triumph, with things like the OneAPI project, O2 Litmus, and a truly impressive focus on developer communities, and half a harking back to the days when IMS was the solution, whatever the problem might be.

Take the GSMA’s ‘Rich Communications Suite’ (RCS). We’ve discussed the imperatives for voice telephony recently here. So, we’re at a loss as to the relevance of RCS to the market, as one of our analysts vociferously describes below.

But we’d value an open discussion with readers who support the initiative. Do read the analysis in the rest of this article, and tell us what you think via the ‘comments’ function on this blog…

Rich Communications Suite - sounds impressive, doesn’t it? You might be surprised to find that in fact, the feature set and the look-and-feel are identical to essentially any IM client you may have used since 1998 or thereabouts. This is because so far, that’s it - RCS mostly consists of adding presence-and-availability to your mobile address book. Which is nice, but as the French say, it won’t invent gunpowder.

The vendors involved - and it’s practically all vendors, usually a bad sign - are very proud of the efforts they’ve made to make sure it’s fully interoperable. Dozens of testfests have been carried out. Trials with small groups of users. All that remains is to deploy the thing and put it on the market. Does this remind you of any other recent mobile technology? Ah, you’re ahead of me. IMS. And indeed, all the RCS applications they showed off were connecting to their SIP applications servers through an IMS core network. Just to prove that it really is IMS, one of the reference applications is the inevitable video-sharing.

This raises a couple of issues. To start with, SIP is not very new. It’s also a proper, tried, IETF-standardised technology. Interoperability should be about as much an issue as it is with the Internet itself. You follow the relevant RFCs and things work. So, this is a sign that one of the big interoperability issues with IMS may still be out there - the fact that 3GPP chose to fork SIP and use its own non-standard standard. Similarly, XMPP is, well, a standard. And neither technology cares very much what kind of device is involved - XMPP even provides for multiple clients logged into the same server with the same user ID at the same time, routing messages based on user-defined priority. And its notion of “transports” allows you to hook up all your other services and see all your contacts in one place, which happens to be the RCS unique selling point.

But perhaps the point is to spread the service beyond the power users? Well, some of the people involved described the target audience as “early adopters, young pioneers, young materialists”, which when you parse the marketspeak means exactly the people who already use IM. So it’s not a good sign that neither Apple nor RIM was present. Social graph applications stand or fall on user adoption, and iPhone and BlackBerry users are strongly represented among the user elite who tend to have huge contacts networks. Neither were the Joint Innovation Lab carriers - Vodafone, China Mobile, and Softbank - around. Although the client in the demonstration was on a Nokia device, and NSN people were in evidence, we didn’t notice anyone from the Symbian/software side of the Nokiasphere either.

However, others seemed to think the point of RCS was to bring presence-and-availability and IM to the bulk market, and that IM was incredibly complicated and daunting. But it can’t be targeted both at the power users and at the mass market - you have to choose.

Also, we’re concerned about the business model, or lack of one. Insofar as the tawdry question of commerce was discussed at all, it was suggested that it would lead to “more total communication”, which apparently must be good. Ask a UK DSL operator how more total iPlayer worked out. More traffic is certain to lead to one thing - more cost. Whether it leads to more revenue, and whether this exceeds the additional cost, is up to your own creativity, product leadership, and customer intimacy. In an environment of falling prices, just pushing volume is not enough.

It’s unlikely that IM traffic would ever be enough to harm operator business models, but the RCS team are awfully keen on video - live, streaming, full motion video on shared-medium wireless networks. Unless the operators can invent a meaningful business model for this, the impact of successful RCS would be indistinguishable from the impact of a hit OTT video app, which is what IMS was meant to save them from. Watch out! Also, what happens when a prepaid RCS customer runs out of cash? Do they just vanish off everyone else’s radar screen, or is there to be a Smile-like model where presence, status updates, and other pre-call activity is free, but voice or video is chargeable?

Further, essentially all RCS’s current and even suggested future features are already well served by competitors, many of whom have the inconvenient property of being free. Are we really expected to be impressed by “sharing photos” in 2009? When every Nokia cameraphone ships with a client designed to upload photos to Flickr (or anything else you may like)? Yes, RCS might integrate them in one place - but it’s worth remembering that “one application to rule them all” has been surprisingly unsuccessful on the Web. Specialisation, according to Robert Heinlein, is for insects. But there are a hell of a lot of insects in the world. Bees are a traditional image of bourgeois trading wealth, civic pride, and work ethic for a reason. And come to think of it, bees are nothing if not devoted to specialisation.

Another problem is that RCS is reliant on someone not solving the same problems in the client. It’s widely assumed that any download or installation is a massive turn-off; but the industry is frantically, and rightly, launching app stores and building developer platforms as fast as it can.

Nokia, for example, already has a unified XMPP-based address book and messaging/sociability app with Nokia Maps integration in beta, has signed up to deploy native Skype clients on the N-series, and also has both a native SIP client and a Gizmo implementation for S60. (Gizmo, like the XMPP/Jabber boys, has the ability to bridge other IM and VoIP networks and act as a single contacts book.) So RCS is relying on the failure of operators’ efforts to encourage users to download and use new applications. It is a fundamental rule of success in all information technologies that you shouldn’t bet against applications development - the evolutionary cycle is much faster than it is for all the other elements of the system.

And, as they say, if you prepare to fail you’ll get what you prepared for. There is also the big IMS question, which is as always simply “why?” You have an endpoint with an IP address. You have an application server with an IP address to which it connects using SIP. Why do we need an IMS between the two? The force of these objections is well shown by the absence of IMS in general at this MWC - nobody is advertising it, talking about it, or indeed doing anything with it. We suspect its sudden rebranding as RCS reflects a push by certain vendors whose heavy investment in IMS begins to look like a waste.

It’s also worth noting that essentially all the operator support for RCS comes from France and, to a lesser extent, Italy. This may reflect a lower penetration of Web-based social network apps there, which could provide a glimmer of a chance - but it may also imply that RCS will be at best a technology that succeeds in one market but doesn’t travel, like i-mode rather than GSM.

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Comments

SMS only really took off when it became possible to send messages to people at other carriers. Yes, IM clients only need an IP address to work globally, but the problem is there are too many different flavors of clients and IM networks, and they keep changing. If the mobile operators in a given country work together and agree on a common standard, fragmentation is reduced, and everyone benefits. Does it need to be RCS? No, it could in fact be anything, as long as all support the same baseline. That is what RCS provides, today. The technology bit is the easy part. It's getting all noses in the same direction that is hard.

I agree that there is a problem here - integrating people's contacts and different networks, but I don't think RCS really solves it - it's trying to simplify by adding another different platform.

A simpler solution has already been demonstrated - have a look at this:

http://www.hellosonar.com/

Simple, elegant, and web based. All the advantages of RCS, without the hassle.

I believe there are some very good points made in this article, for example, the discussion about "IMS vs Internet services", "embedded vs downloadable applications. There are a lot of challenged in getting RCS-like services successful, no one will deny that. However, I believe there are some over-dramatisations of the facts. Below my feedback.

First of all, I believe it is fair to point out that the amount of GSM subscribers in the world now reached 4 billion, more than the amount of Internet or Facebook users combined. This means there is a large opportunity to gain the network effects that are so vital for services on the Internet.

I have been in this business for a while and this is the first time I see that an initiative is built not only around the vendors of large telco equipment, but around developers, operators, and handset manufacturers. RCS is going to be embedded or pre-installed in the handsets, so the notion of downloadable clients is not correct. Of course it will take some time before all 4 billion phones are equipped with an RCS client, but there are other ways to achieve the needed critical mass. The PC has an important place to play in the coming 1.5 years, not only for RCS but also for operators in general. In the Nordics, one operator has stated it will and is selling more laptops/netbooks than regular stores. Optimus in Portugal is a great example of a company that has successfully introduced a PC play to its offering, and been very successful in gaining more voice and SMS traffic without large cannibalization (www.optimuistag.pt).

I fully disagree about the statement that "one-application" is better than "multiple services in one". There are numerous examples of application and services that integrate a variety of functionality, notably the same examples you provided in this article such as Skype as well as Nokia Ovi! Think about any phone out there today, even the cheapest models are multi-purpose devices with music players etc so your statement is simply incorrect. There is room for single-purpose and multi-purpose applications. I am a strong believer in Internet applications, and I think the target group mentioned are expecting Internet-like services on their mobile devices, which is why Smartphone device sales continuous to grow (although still not quite 99% of the market of course).

Regarding IMS, it is correct to say IMS has been adopted slower than expected (like many other new technologies). However, there is an estimated 80-100 IMS deployments worldwide which certainly does not make IMS a technology that will go away. In fact, LTE deployments that are hapenning in the next coming years rely on an all-IP network, of which IMS is the natural choice so IMS is here to stay. And to say IMS was not there at MWC is a great way to see the technology maturing. It was definitely there at MWC in many of the booths I visited but it wasn't marketed as IMS, which is great, as it is not about the technology but about what services run on top of it! I think it is great to see you didn't notice "IMS" as such at MWC!

To conclude, I think your have a lot of good points that RCS needs to overcome before it become successful. The success of RCS depends on players such as, developers, operators, NEP's and device manufacturers keep on working together to make it very simple and rich to use these services. Last but not least, end users will want Internet-like services on their mobile devices, be it Netbooks or Mobile phones and RCS is one attempt to bring these together without the need for new identities such as on the web, new downloadable applications, and without the need to type in www.facebook.com, sign in and see if you have new messages as RCS is much more instant. If done right, RCS can be successful simply because the sheer volume of GSM users, the ability to deploy embedded services on mobile and PC devices, the push to all-IP networks and the end user behavior demanding simpler and richer user experiences. Let's keep the dialog open :-)

I totally agree with the comment posted by Jeroen.

Look at the story of MMS....very slow take up crippled with interoperability issues unlike SMS.

As an Operator I need to get ride of the interoperability issues providing bad customer experience...which in the end prevents the adoption of the service on a large scale.

My mind is not made yet on RCS, but if it can help us to overcome these barriers, we will welcome this initiative.

I've been following the development of IMS-capable handsets (however defined) since 2005, and RCS for more than a year.

Overall, I was less than impressed by the progress made by RCS that I saw at MWC, which seems to be driven by engineering concerns rather than by market evolution.

Also, I can't be the only person to have noticed the irony of the GSMA awarding its "Best Handset" prize to the INQ 1, which comes with pre-integrated Skype, Facebook and MSN. Conspicuously, it manages to do this perfectly well, in 2009, without RCS. What will INQ be doing by the time RCS finally hits the streets in a version capable of properly integrating to peoples' existing social networks?

In any case, social networks like Facebook are no longer "enhanced phonebooks", but are platforms themselves, *within* which people listen to music, conduct IM and so on.

Vodafone (and some others) have the right idea of doing plug-ins *for* Facebook, rather than hoping that the Internet players will come chasing after this irrelevant "4 billion" number.

And on cross-vendor support: if RCS hasn't convinced Apple, Google, INQ and RIM to sign up by (let's be generous) MWC 2010, it's dead.

Dean Bubley

But at the same time as all this talk about the 4 billion is going on, people like QQ and MXit in China and South Africa are spreading like wildfire and driving mobile data adoption in the most unlikely places. QQ has an internal economy and developer ecosystem, as well as both a Symbian client and SMS transport.

Further, which is easier - doing a little javascript widget to wrap around the Facebook API in order to integrate it on the handset, or forklift-upgrading a telco core network and deploying new handsets to everybody? Please consider in your answer that Vodafone, China Mobile, Softbank, Apple, Palm, and Symbian have already chosen the first option.

Also, if you want interoperability, why not use SMS and/or USSD to communicate with a client on the handset? Everyone speaks those.

Or, as pointed out, XMPP, and run a transport (free open source ones exist) to bridge in AIM etc? Or implement a multiprotocol client - which is, as it happens, what the PC world did?

Thanks for useful input above. Some more comments from an ex senior exec of a large operator, sent by email:

From my perspective there are two main criticisms: the lack of an end-user starting point and very much related to that, the inherent problems of IMS - carrier visions of a controlled future focused on billing and restricting user flexibility. The main problem here is that despite having IP in its title, it does not even handle IP protocols properly (let alone to any end user advantage). It's really about making the packet switch network behave like a circuit-switched network - with all the billing gates (disguised as QoS) which abrogate the Internet's open end-to-end architecture. Its worth reading John Waclawsky's seminal piece on this 'IMS: A critique of the Grand Plan' (Google it).

Its a classic case of a technology-led defensive strategy based upon a circuit switch business model. End-users - where are they considered?

I really don't understand the need for RCS. Palringo already offers a downloadable client that integrates IM, voice, photos and location--essentially, instant communications with presence and context. Palringo works across ALL mobile networks (including wifi) and works on ALL major mobile platforms. There is no need for large working groups and complicated protocols. Palringo is being used by consumers and businesses in over 100 countries.
And, we have enhanced context and presence planned for launch over next few months.

So, if the GSMA and its members really want to know about rich communications, they should give us a call-we've already implemented it!

Kerry Ritz
Palringo
www.palringo.com

I personally find interesting all those articles that looking at the telecom industry from several different angles finally finish up finding IMS irrelevant or an error.

I ask myself if it is irrelevant, if it is something that should be dropped, what we put in the core network instead? Today all network vendors equipment that handles our voice calls only sell IMS core equipment, mostly of the world networks already started the migration to IMS and almost all major cores were already upgraded (check it out with your preferred carrier).

This means that mostly of the voice calls of the world are carried on over IMS already. This include almost all of the voice calls that Skype uses to keep their business afloat (this is a very interesting business model indeed, what happens to Skype as a company if all of us have Skype and free Skype to Skype calls?).

What all those engineers are trying to push is to this IMS core services being available at user level services, to enable the vision of Mobile 2.0 where the network could offer enablers to value added services and applications and where the IP is used end to end, terminal to terminal.

I also feel unconfortable to read that 3GPP decided to fork IETF defined standards into some 3GPP only solution. Looks like a conspiracy. I agree that more than once 3GPP changed the protocol in a way to solve something that was already solved on IETF but also several times 3GPP changed something because it was a requirement on telecom networks that was not covered on the initial IETF work. Even so, mostly of the documentation between the 2 is fairly synchronized considering the amount of people working loosely at each side.

Therefore I don't want to attack or defend RCS (since I have stakes on it) but instead I would like to see more impartial views on the subject.

Marcelo Manta

I have a couple of comments on this thread without getting into a religious war around RCS.

There are two approaches to buildng a large community of devices that can offer an interconnected experience: one is to follow an island approach like it first happened in the IM world, and later worry about bridging this "set of islands" (that will inevitably happen) to increase the intrinsic value of each island. Of course, if one island happens to grow as big as Skype (for instance), that big island can dominate the terms of interconnectivity.. The second approach is to agree on a set of base functionality and interworking protocols and start to create a larger 'cloud' of interconnected islands at the very outset.

RCS is following the latter , and depending on your point of view, it is either an inefficient, or an efficient way to do things.

I am also sympathetic to the comment that Operators are slow and MMS took years to gain mass market traction. Well, a few things were different there -- operators wanted to keep MMS within their own subscribers as a "differentiated" experience, and resisted interoperability for fear of cannibalizing that value. In hindsight, the internetworking of MMS worldwide is what has made it a $10 billion plus market today.
With RCS, the operators are trying out the other approach, and we'll see what happens. What is different here, is that certain islands providing similar experiences already exist in the web 2.0 world -- facebook, apple, google etc. This makes it important for RCS community to tie into the social networks (at least the dominant ones) that are in use today.

A final comment on the remark that RCS is a way to sell/re-market IMS all over again -- well isn't that progress? The vendor community has realized that it is the experience that sells, not a technology or an architecture.. It would also be unfair to pin the business case for IMS on just the RCS experience. Eventually, RCS experience should interwork seamlessly with certain existing islands (like facebook) that don't know or care about IMS..

I'd be astonished if "most" voice calls are carried over IMS. "Most" carriers haven't deployed it yet, including huge ones like Vodafone, VZ, Telefonica, DTAG, China Mobile, BT, so practically all the smaller carriers would have had to do it for the numbers to add up...and someone on the Cook Report mailing list was saying the other day that KPN only recently decommissioned the last 1AESS switch.

There's also the issue of "what is IMS" - there are a lot of products that are "IMS ready" or "IMS compliant" about, but that's not the same thing.

Also, why is there this strange refusal to accept that interoperable IM protocols exist and operate all over the world right now?

The comment suggesting that all voice is carried over IMS is wrong to say the least. It could be explained by the fact that there are several IP backbones out there that carry VOIP. In general softswitches are used to control this traffic and in some cases SIP is used to relay it. I can imagine that some carriers have deployed SIP infrastructure and may well be calling it IMS.

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